• Market
  • Jun 03, 2024

Cold Feet at Christie’s Hong Kong Spring Auctions

Auctioneer Georgina Hilton auctioning ANDY WARHOL, Flowers, during Christie’s 21st Century Evening Sale in Hong Kong. Courtesy Christie’s Hong Kong. 

The ransomware group RansomHub hacked Christie’s servers and brought down its website on May 9 (later confirmed by the auction house on May 27), while threatening to release the personal data of 500,000 clients. Unsurprisingly, the Hong Kong Auctions in May 2024 at Christie’s echoed the sentiments caused by both the global economic woes and collectors’ apprehension ahead of the Spring Auctions of 20th and 21st Century art, held from May 28 to 29. The four events—two evening sales, two day sales—resulted in sales of HKD 963 million (USD 123 million), which fell below the HKD 1 billion (USD 128 million) mark and the 2019 levels for the same categories. 

ZAO WOU-KI, 10.01.68., oil on canvas, 1968, 82 × 116.5 cm. Courtesy Christie’s Hong Kong. 

At the 20th Century Evening Sale on May 28, the night’s highest bid across 34 lots went to the iconic abstract painting 10.01.68. (1968) by the Zao Wou-Ki, rendered in burnt sienna and turquoise for HKD 63 million (USD 8.1 million). Zao’s other abstraction 20.01.67. (1967) in inky black and ivory white, followed behind, garnered HKD 44 million (USD 5.6 million). Zao’s works surpassed René Magritte’s L’invitation au voyage (1944), a gargantuan pink rose sitting on the ocean’s horizon from his faux-impressionist “Renoir period,” which realized HKD 42.7 million (USD 5.46 million). The early Chinese modernist Sanyu’s Vase de fleurs (Vase of Flowers) (1931) fetched HKD 36.7 million (USD 4.7 million) above its high estimate, showing his persistent popularity after his showpiece Femme nue sur un tapis (Nude on Tapestry)  (1929) was sold in November 2023 for HKD 187.4 million (USD 24.2 million). Another highlight, one of the most well-known paintings in ’90s China, the late Chinese artist Chen Yifei’s Lingering Melodies from the Xunyang River (1991), a photorealistic portrayal of three ladies gathering to play musical instruments, was modestly serenaded with a winning bid of HKD 35.5 million (USD 4.5 million), within the expected range.

Only three of the 34 lots were left unsold, including Zao’s painting Les Attiseurs (The Guardian of the Flame) (1955) from his oracle bone script period, with Christie’s raking in a total of HKD 405 million (USD 52 million). 

ANDY WARHOL, Flowers, 1965, acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, 208 × 208 cm. Courtesy Christie’s Hong Kong. 

On the same night, the 21st Century Evening Sale also witnessed ebbing enthusiasm, as 10 out of 47 lots remained unsold, resulting in a sell-through rate of just 79 percent. Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1965), which features acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas of yellow flowers, drooped in at HKD 66.6 million (USD 8.5 million), right above its low estimate. Two of Yoshitomo Nara’s acrylic paintings found new homes: a creepy girl in Portrait of AE (2009) for HKD 29 million (USD 3.8 million) and the sloganeering in Rock You! (2006) for HKD 24.6 million (USD 3.1 million). Izumi Kato’s Untitled (2009), which features an earthling boy with root-like legs, was one of the few in this auction that surpassed its high estimate, at HKD 2.5 million (USD 322,000).

Other artworks around the range of HKD 1 million (USD 128,000) were particularly popular, including the charcoal ink on paper in Brushstroke 3–88 (2021) by Korean artist Lee Bae for HKD 1.2 million (USD 153,000), Liu Xiaohui’s post-cubist abstraction in Untitled – Triangle in Front of the Mirror (2015–17) for HKD 2.1 million (USD 274,000), as well as Kei Imazu’s expressionist color brushstrokes’ composition in Broken Image (2015) for HKD 1.6 million (209,000). Among the unsold works were both of Nicolas Party’s, including his Still Life with a Ribbon (2011–12) of abstract fruits and Two Portraits (2016) of two pastel-hued figures on saffron-painted linen. The sale’s total was HKD 338.4 million (USD 43.3 million). 

BA THET, Three Ladies at a Water Well, 1965, oil on canvas, 69 × 51 cm. Courtesy Christie’s Hong Kong. 

On May 29, the 20th and 21st Century Day Sale took place as two separate sales of 90 and 101 lots, respectively. They brought in a total of HKD 220 million (USD 28 million) and reached respective sell-through rates of 87 and 91 percent. Once again, Zao Wou-Ki championed the 20th Century Day Sale with his abstract ocean wave 08.02.64-26.01.71 (1964–71) at HKD 21 million (USD 2.7 million). On the other end of the spectrum, the auction featured a modernist paintings by Burmese artists, including Ba Thet’s impressionist painting of Three Ladies at a Water Well (1965) and Ba Kyi’s war scene in Untitled (1963), both of which sold for HKD 50,400 (USD 6,448), while several others from the country went without buyers. 

GEORGE CONDO, Transmutation 2, 2015, oil on linen, 175 × 165 cm. Courtesy Christie’s Hong Kong. 

At the 21st Century Day Sale, George Condo’s mutated Goofy in Transmutation 2 (2015) toppled the sale at HKD 14.9 million (USD 1.9 million), followed by four different polka-dotted and mosaic works by Yayoi Kusama of pumpkins, flowers, Mount Fuji, and a monochrome, each of which sold in the range of HKD 5.9 to 10 million (USD 757,000 to 1.3 million). Filipino artist Ronald Ventura’s EYELAND (3) (2018) which features a girl with her eyes covered by helium balloons shaped like various animals, fetched HKD 1.4 million (USD 180,000), a threefold increase from its high estimate. The bifurcation of the market continues to widen and provides spaces for emerging artists to break through.

In comparison to the previous year, the two evening sales generated a total of HKD 743 million (USD 95 million), decreasing by 8.5 percent from last year’s spring evening sales (including the Post-Millennium Evening Sale and the 20th/21st Century Art Evening Sale). Overall, with the day sales included, Christie’s saw a decline of 22 percent, year-on-year, from HK 1.24 billion (USD 159 million) in spring 2023 to HKD 963 million (USD 123 million) this year. While short-term pain is much expected in this cyclical downtrend, the continuing growth in value of works by emerging artists might signify a paradigm shift in the market, if not generationally then at least in terms of taste.

Alex Yiu is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.

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